Leslie Howard (April 3, 1893 - June 1, 1943) was an English stage and Academy Award nominated film actor. He is best known by international audiences as Ashley Wilkes in the film Gone with the Wind. He was an accomplished actor whose film roles included Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1938), The Petrified Forest (1936) and ''Intermezzo (1939).
Howard was always better known for his acting, enjoying triumphs in The Animal Kingdom (1932) and The Petrified Forest (1935), immortalising both roles on film. But he had the bad timing to open in Hamlet on Broadway in 1936 just a few weeks after John Gielgud had had a resounding success in a rival production of Shakespeare’s play that was far more successful with both critics and audiences. Howard’s production lasted 39 performances in New York before it was withdrawn. It proved to be Howard’s final stage role.
Howard often played stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen in films such as the film version of his great stage success Berkeley Square (1933), for which he was nominated for a Academy Award for Best Actor. He played The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934 and in 1938 played Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, which earned him another Oscar nomination. He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound but in a different role from the one he'd portrayed in the Broadway cast.
In 1936 he appeared in The Petrified Forest. It was Howard who reportedly insisted that Humphrey Bogart appear in the film as gangster Duke Mantee. They had previously appeared in the play together on Broadway and became lifelong friends; the Bogarts named their daughter Leslie after him. As a parody, Friz Freleng's 1937 cartoon She Was an Acrobat's Daughter portrays a cinema audience watching The Petrified Florist, starring Bette Savis and Lester Coward.
The Petrified Forest was one of several films in which Howard co-starred with Bette Davis. They also appeared together in the film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and the 1937 romantic comedy It's Love I'm After (also starring Olivia de Havilland). Howard starred with Ingrid Bergman in the 1939 film Intermezzo and Norma Shearer in the 1936 film version of Romeo and Juliet.
Howard is perhaps best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the epic Gone with the Wind (1939), but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood and returned to Britain to help with the World War II war effort. He directed and starred in a number of World War II films, including The First of the Few (which he also produced) and Forty-Ninth Parallel with Laurence Olivier. In Forty-Ninth Parallel Howard played an English eccentric who is wounded while capturing a Nazi.
Howard died in 1943 when he was returning to England from Lisbon on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777. The aircraft was shot down by a German Junkers Ju 88 over the Bay of Biscay. It has been rumoured that Howard was engaged in secret war work at the time, and that the Germans believed the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who had been in Algiers, to be on board. Howard's manager, Alfred Chenhalls, physically resembled Churchill, while Howard was tall and thin, like Churchill's bodyguard, Walter H. Thompson. However, this story has been completely discredited. Churchill himself seems to have been to blame for the spread of it; in his autobiography, he expresses sorrow that a mistake about his activities might have cost Howard his life.
The truth, revealed in several exhaustively detailed books such as Bloody Biscay (which comes to a slightly different conclusion), Flight 777 by Ian Colvin, and In Search of My Father by Howard's actor son Ronald, is that the Germans were almost certainly out to shoot down the plane in order to kill Howard himself. His intelligence-gathering activities (while ostensibly on "entertainer goodwill" tours), as well as the chance to demoralise Britain with the loss of one of its most outspokenly patriotic figures, were behind the Luftwaffe attack. Ronald Howard's book, in particular, explores in great detail written German orders to the Staffel assigned to intercept the airliner, as well as communiques on the British side which verify intelligence reports of the time indicating a deliberate attack on Howard. It also makes clear that the Germans were well aware of Churchill's whereabouts at the time and were not so naïve as to believe the British Prime Minister would be traveling alone aboard an unescorted and unarmed civilian airliner when both the secrecy and air power of the British government were at his command.
Howard was traveling through Spain and Portugal, ostensibly lecturing on film, but also meeting with local propagandists and shoring up support for the Allied cause. The Germans in all probability suspected even more surreptitious activities. (German agents were active throughout Spain and Portugal, which, like Switzerland, was a crossroads for persons from both sides of the conflict, but even more accessible to Allied citizens.) A book by Spanish writer José Rey-Ximena called 'El Vuelo del Ibis' ('The Flight of the Ibis') claims that Howard was on a top secret mission for Churchill to warn Franco to keep out of the war. Howard had contacts with Ricardo Gimenez-Arnau, head of Spains Foreign Office via an old girlfriend, Conchita Montenegro.
Ronald Howard, Leslie's son, was of the conviction that the orders to liquidate Leslie came from Goebbels, who had been ridiculed in one of Howard's films and who believed Howard to be the most dangerous propagandist in the British service.
Howard was flying from Portela (Lisbon), Portugal back home to England on a regularly scheduled flight that did not pass over what would commonly be referred to as a war zone. The Luftwaffe records indicate that the Staffel was sent beyond its normal patrol area to intercept and shoot down the airliner, even though this flight had never before been disrupted. There were about fourteen other passengers, most of them either British executives with corporate ties in Portugal, or various British comparatively lower echelon government functionaries. There were also two or three children, the offspring of British military personnel. The DC-3 was attacked by eight German JU-88s, despite the fact that Luftwaffe patrols in the nearest normal vicinity usually consisted of single planes. According to German documents, the plane was shot down at longitude 10.15 West, latitude 46.07 North, some from Bordeaux, France. (The DC-3's last radio message indicated it was being fired upon at longitude 09.37 West, latitude 46.54 North.) The German pilots photographed the wreckage floating in the Bay of Biscay. After the war, copies of these captured photos were sent to Howard's family.
Christopher Goss's book Bloody Biscay, however, quotes Oberleutnant Herbert Hintze, Staffel Führer of 14 Staffel, based in Bordeaux, France, as remarking that his Staffel shot down the DC-3 merely because the plane was recognised as an enemy aircraft, unaware that it was an unarmed civilian plane. Hintze states that his fellow Staffel pilots were angry that the Luftwaffe had not informed them of a scheduled flight between Lisbon and the UK, and that had they known, they could easily have escorted the plane to Bordeaux and captured it and all aboard. More recently, Spanish author Jose Rey-Ximena has claimed in a book that the actor's plane was shot down as he was returning to England from a secret mission ordered by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to dissuade Franco from joining the war with Hitler and Mussolini .
Howard, widely known as a ladies' man, is reported to have had an affair with Merle Oberon while filming The Scarlet Pimpernel, Tallulah Bankhead when they appeared onstage in Her Cardboard Lover and Conchita Montenegro, with whom he appeared in the 1931 film Never the Twain Shall Meet.